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January 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 1 · pp. 35–42 

Handling Prosperity - The Lifestyle Question

Wally Kroeker

Several years ago when I was a business reporter for a daily newspaper, I interviewed a man from Tokyo who was high up in one of the world’s largest electronics corporations. He extolled the virtues of Japanese technology but seemed especially proud of their keen grasp of marketing strategy. His corporation had produced tiny transistorized radios several years before they “caught on” in the west, but westerners hadn’t bought them because they didn’t think they needed them. So the company had held up distribution temporarily and developed a shrewd marketing campaign to convince North Americans they wanted this product even though they didn’t need it. Once they had successfully created the need in the minds of consumers, the pocket radios sold like hotcakes.

We chuckled about that together and I went back to my newspaper and dutifully wrote the article about how this company had made millions by selling us things we really didn’t need but now couldn’t live without.

That incident stuck in my mind. I had seldom before thought much about why we buy the things we do. In four years of business journalism I was to see again and again how easily a clever advertising ploy could manipulate our buying habits.

Most of our lifestyles reflect the materialistic culture around us. Like our unbelieving neighbors, we are preoccupied with material acquisition and “living the good life.” Not only does this harm our stewardship, it also dilutes our allegiance to God and siphons our energies away from that which is good and expedient. Too seldom are our consumption practices shaped by a desire to serve God, even though Scripture is clear that there is more virtue in simplicity than in cluttered material abundance.

I hesitate to use the term “simplicity” or “simple lifestyle” because I know what an emotional red flag it is for many Christians: it conjures up images of “flower children,” unwashed “hippies” or bohemians who wore ragged bluejeans and had scraggly hair. {36}

I know too that many of you think there has been much hypocrisy among proponents of the simple life. Bible teachers may lecture rich people about lavish cars and swimming pools when they themselves have ten thousand dollars worth of books lining their walls. Or the missions executive chides people about their jacuzzis when he may spend thousands of dollars (of other people’s money) running around Asia and South America “serving the Lord.”

But the existence of some hypocrisy (real or imagined) does not exempt us from examining how we handle our prosperity, a problem that has plagued God’s people from Old Testament times to the present. We cannot dismiss it so easily, though we may like to.

The biblical record gives much attention to lifestyle. Some even say the God portrayed in the Old Testament is one who usually takes the side of the poor and takes the rich to task for their greed. The Book of Amos, for example, treats the lifestyle question in a manner not entirely comforting to the wealthy. He spoke specifically to the way in which the affluent were living, noting their penchant for expensive furniture, choice cuts of meat and other exquisite things. Though it is not wrong to enjoy the fine things of life, he did insist that self-indulgence is wrong, especially for those who were unconcerned for the physical and spiritual well-being of others.

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ, the man after whom Christians are named, said harsh things about self-indulgent lifestyles. He often taught about the dangers of possessions and the responsibility of sharing. Some suggest that the issue of wealth and poverty was one of Jesus’ most frequent topics and that after idolatry, it is the second most dominant theme in the Bible (it has been claimed that one of every ten verses contains direct teachings on economic issues).

Jesus said unflattering things about camels and needle’s eyes. Luke seems to make economic conversion a fundamental aspect of the new kingdom. Paul talked about sharing with those who have nothing. And John warned that those who do not help their neighbor do not have the love of God in them.

The later post-apostolic Church was not much easier on the wealthy. The second-century author of the Apocalypse of Hermans compared the rich men in the community to round stones, which are not suitable for building unless something is cut off from them. Martin Hengel says rich people were condemned by many church fathers, “but they were allowed a chance of salvation if they lived modestly and distributed their possessions generously to the poor.” 1

Clement of Alexandria attacked the unbridled luxury of the upper classes. In one writing he criticized the desire of some rich Christian women to adorn themselves with gold and jewels. Apparently these {37} Christian matrons in Alexandria used the familiar argument, “We’ve earned it, why can’t we enjoy it?” Clement replied curtly that people who talk like this do not know God’s will.

These are all comments from the literature of the church. They may discomfort us, but somehow they should be dealt with. Of course, the early church was conditioned by an expectation that Jesus would return soon. “The imminence of the final coming of the Kingdom of God dominated the thinking of many in the early church and lowered the priority accorded to worldly goods, economic systems and attempts at social transformation.” 2

The question that follows is whether we have the early church’s expectation of Christ’s soon return. And we don’t! Despite our pious eschatological pronouncements, few of us really expect Christ to return soon.

Henry Schmidt relates the story of an unbeliever who told a Christian friend one day, “You Christians sing, ‘This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.’ But for people who are just passing through it looks to me like you are picking up a lot of stuff.” He’s right. Most of us are socked in for a lengthy stay.

Concerns about consumption have kept surfacing in recent years. We hear them from secular writers like Jerzy Kosinski, who said, “Americans have become trained consumers of goods. . . . They equate acquiring with achieving. . . .” We read things in our church periodicals like, “Haven’t we managed rather well to turn the eye of the needle into something like the Main Street underpass, capable of handling the traffic of camels and Cadillacs?” We even hear the concern from some of the most conservative corners of fundamentalism. Consider this statement: “Wasting money is as much an act of violence against the poor as refusing to feed the hungry.” That doesn’t come from your typical radical voluntary service worker. That comes from George Sweeting, president of Moody Bible Institute.


Who shall decide what is an overindulgent lifestyle? How much is too much? At what point do we cross the line from a merely comfortable or adequate lifestyle to one that is rampantly excessive? I know where I would like to draw the line—just on the other side of how I live. You might be inclined to do the same. We read Jesus’ harsh sayings about wealth and we want to apply them to everyone else.

In the book, The Christian Entrepreneur, Carl Kreider refers to a New York City restaurant where the average tab for two people is $225. We would probably agree with the New York food critic who said, “Morally the place is an outrage.” 3 {38}

How about recreational activity? Professor Robert Kreider mentions a hotel in Chicago that offers a “terribly chic” weekend package at $13,315 per person. That’s also morally outrageous, but I’d love to spend perhaps a quarter of that on an “educational” trip to Anabaptist haunts in Europe. Somehow we can rationalize that kind of expense. Suddenly the needle’s eye has all kinds of room.

Robert Kreider has written: “Compared to most people in the world we are rich—all of us. I buy a pair of shoes at a price equal to the average per capita income of a person from Upper Volta. We are all camels, and there is that needle’s eye.” 4 We used to gasp at houses over $100,000. Today we have Mennonite Brethren who live in homes costing nearly 10 times that much. But where do we draw the line? Should a $25,000 frame house in Hillsboro, Kansas, be the norm? Where do we draw the line? And, perhaps more important, who helps us draw it?


Many different types of arguments have been used to promote simpler lifestyles. You’ve likely heard several of them.

1. Hedonism, or self-interest. This argument says that the simple life is ultimately more satisfying, that simple living gives us greater pleasure in the long run. We grow into better people by being less tied to our possessions. Those using this argument might quote Art Gish, who says,

The more mature a personality becomes, the less significance possessions have. The essence of personality is in relationship with people and is expressed through love, friendship and creativity. . . . The real growth in civilization is not in increasing affluence, but in the development of relationships. 5

Robert Coles, a child psychologist, adds that wealth can actually harm children. Children who are surrounded by possessions, according to some of Coles’ evidence, are less sensitive, less thoughtful and less spiritually awakened than poor or working class children.

2. Service to the poor. This is an argument from philanthropy; If you live simply, you have more to share with others. “Let’s equalize our wealth; it is not moral that some of us have more than others.” Holders of this argument may quote Mark 10:21 where Jesus said, “Go sell what you have and give to the poor.”

3. Ecology. Consumption rapes the environment. North Americans, with six percent of the world’s population, consume forty percent of the world’s resources. Someone has calculated, “If only fourteen percent of the rest of the world were to join us in our current rate of consumption, there would be . . . nothing left of the world’s known {39} resources for the other eighty percent.” We can preserve our environment by taking less from it.

4. Asceticism. The spiritual world and the material world are at war. The material world is basically bad, and we should avoid it. “Earthly pain buys heavenly glory.”

5. Dissociation from society. The social world is evil and we should depart from it. Thus we should live simply as a sign of our separateness. “Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate.” (2 Cor. 6:17).

These arguments have varying degrees of merit. A more comprehensive approach to the prosperity issue, though, is the one propounded by Vernard Eller, who contends that wealth and possessions can turn our affections away from what should be our main pursuit, God. Material possessions says Eller, “can be good—if they are used to support man’s relationship with God rather than compete with it.” 6 Thus a Christian lifestyle could be described as one that allows us to focus all of our attention on God himself. Says Eller:

Christian simplicity is to so use “things” that, first, they do not interfere with one’s absolute joy in God, and, second, they actually point toward and contribute to that joy. . . . So Christian simplicity is not an anxious scrupulosity about possessions (either anxiety about getting and holding them or about keeping them below a certain “Christian” level); rather it is a joyous freedom regarding them. 7

Of all the evangelical statements on handling prosperity and ordering our lifestyles, one that stands out and which, I suspect, will be most palatable to this group, is one presented by Leighton Ford of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Ford says Jesus gives us several important principles to guide us:

He gave us a command to obey: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jesus also gave us a comparison to keep in mind: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness . . .” (Matt. 6:22-23). “In the ancient world the eye was looked upon as the window by which light entered the body, so Jesus used this metaphor of spiritual vision. The man who tries to live both by spiritual and material values is like a man whose eyes are out of focus by trying to look at two objects at once—he sees nothing clearly,” Ford says. {40}

Jesus gave us a contradiction to avoid: “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24).

Jesus gave us a concentration to pursue: “Do not worry, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-34).

In sum, Ford suggests that Christians set their priorities by asking four questions about everything they do and buy: Will it have eternal and lasting significance? Will it clarify my spiritual vision? Will it make it easier or more difficult to be devoted to Christ? Will it further God’s kingdom?

We seldom ask these kinds of questions. For many Christians, the only question is” “Can I afford it?”

To Ford’s suggestions I would add yet another dimension. Drawing the line between stinginess and self-indulgence is too difficult a task for believers to accomplish alone. We need the counsel of our brothers and sisters in the family of God to help us make these decisions. And that is probably one of the hardest things for us to do because we are basically individualistic. We frown more at the person who questions an affluent lifestyle than at the person who flagrantly and unquestioningly indulges in it.

Before we can make any real strides toward solving the question of lifestyle we have to come to grips with what it means to be discerning communities of the Spirit where, under the guidance of Word and Spirit, we discern together what it means for us today to be obedient to Jesus’ teaching on this issue. Unfortunately, we too often respond with anger and vindictiveness when anyone brings up this touchy topic. It is so easy to get angry, to pick up our marbles—or checkbook—and to go home in a huff rather than gathering around God’s Word.

Our enterprise may be free, but it is also very private—so much so that one rarely encounters a believer who feels free enough to share the struggle and the joy of what God has been able to accomplish through the exercise of his stewardship. In most congregations and assemblies there are found those who freely share testimonies, both of spiritual victories and details of personal spiritual successes and failures. Yet when is the last time anyone was bold enough to tell how he managed his resources, or what she experienced in sharing money or her possessions with those who needed them? Our individualism so binds us at this point that we doubtless find it easier to report {41} how we shared the gospel of Jesus Christ than how we opened our hearts (and our purses) to those who needed help. In fact, the members of a local body of believers often do not know of the needs among themselves, and since we have been trained to think that the most private thing about us (next to sex) is how we earn and spend our money, many real needs are never known. 8

How well we obey Jesus’ commands to trust God rather than possessions depends on our faith. The more faith we have, the less we will be concerned about material values. But here also we need the help of others to support and build up this kind of faith.

Another compelling reason for refusing to be swept along with the world’s pursuit of material pleasures is that a simplified lifestyle frees us for greater service. I know many will counter with claims that they do much with their money that is good for the church. They support many important ministries. That is true, though many successful ministries also flourish without the largesse of wealthy donors. (Some church historians would add that the Christian church has had its greatest power at the times in history when it was the poorest financially.)

But I think that many wealthy people sell themselves short. Their greatest contributions may actually lie beyond their ability to earn and give money. Some of the richest men I know do not make their best contributions on a check blank. They make their best contributions in areas entirely unrelated to money. We seem to have the notion that a person who is rich can serve in only two ways—either by making more money to give or by serving on the board of trustees—as if his or her only skills have to do with the production and management of money. I quarrel with that notion. By spending less energy on making money, many of us might find we have time and energy for other uses that are equally or perhaps even more beneficial. We may be surprised to find that we have other gifts that have been submerged by undue attention to possessions.


Let me suggest a few questions we can ask ourselves about our own lifestyles:

Do you consciously build your lifestyle with any consideration of the direction or choices God would have you select?

Will spending more on yourself complicate your life or will it free you for better service to God?

Would poor people be comfortable in your home? Would you be comfortable in theirs? Or does your affluence create barriers to others in {42} the faith? When was the last time you invited guests who earned half as much money as you do? When was the last time you invited guests who made twice as much as you do? How did you feel about the disparity of wealth?

If half of your wealth and possessions were suddenly stripped away, could you still enjoy life? Are you that free? It is easy to say “yes,” but try it sometime. Some month, after you have made your house and utility payments, try spending half as much as you normally do on groceries, gas, eating out, entertainment, recreation, and see what that does to your enjoyment level. Examine what that should say to your approach to life.

I believe that few threats to our faithfulness creep up on us as stealthily as does materialism. And few grip us as tightly once we are in their grasp.

Never give your hearts to this world or to any of the things in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. For the whole world system, based as it is on men’s primitive desires, their greedy ambitions and the glamour of all that they think splendid, is not derived from the Father at all, but from the world itself. The world and all its passionate desire will one day disappear. but the man who is following God’s will is part of the permanent and cannot die (1 John 2:15-17, Phillips).

And those words, my fellow Christians and camels, still apply to us today.


  1. Martin Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974).
  2. Robert Stivers, “Deciding on a Christian Life Style,” Christian Century, December 17, 1980, pp. 1244-48.
  3. Carl Kreider, The Christian Entrepreneur (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980), pp. 125, 129.
  4. Robert Kreider, “The Needle’s Eye,” The Mennonite, March 17, 1981.
  5. Arthur Gish, Beyond the Rat Race (Scottdale, PA and Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 1973), pp. 79, 83.
  6. Vernard Eller, The Simple Life (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 28, 29.
  7. lbid., p. 122.
  8. Edmund Janzen, “Some Confessional Thoughts on Stewardship,” West Coast MCC Memo. September-October, 1980.
Wally Kroeker is editor of the Christian Leader, Hillsboro, Kansas. He has been editor of the Saskatchewan Business Journal and has written business articles for the Winnipeg Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Financial Times of London.

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